Paul Houle: Maple Spring needed in B.C.
We need a Maple Spring here in British Columbia. What could we call it? Perhaps a Dogwood Spring?
Some of the heroic young people involved in Quebec's great social upheaval of last spring, known in English as the "Maple Spring", brought their message, via the "Maple Tour", to Vancouver this past Friday (October 5).
Ethan Cox, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, and Cloé Zawadzki-Turcotte talked about all the sweat it took to eventually get 400,000 citizens onto the streets of Montreal. This to protest the Charest government's free-speech-limiting Bill 78 as well as growing social and economic inequality in the province. It is seen as the greatest demonstration of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
As British Columbians, we can learn much from our Francophone compatriots. Here, in this wealthy province, we have many of the glaring social inequalities that prompted the Quebec protest movement: a disgraceful level of child poverty, homelessness, and inadequate housing as well as access to higher eduction that is limited by ever increasing tuition fees.
It is time for us to hit the streets as well. How was it done in Quebec? Cox stated, "This can be the first pebble that started an avalanche." Zawadzki-Turcotte noted that the small "pebbles" rolled into place as organizers started handing out leaflets every day at college and university campuses all over Quebec, often beginning at seven in the morning.
Democratic structures within the various student unions ensured a high level of participation and "buy in" by students and their supporters. "Test" rallies and demonstrations happened—rehearsals that built in momentum until the really enormous manifestations of this past Spring. And then the defeat of the Charest government. And then the rollback of the tuition fee increases. Many students have received a rebate on tuition increases already paid. As well, Bill 78 has been rescinded by the new Quebec government.
Nadeau-Dubois has previously quoted Mark Twain: "They didn't know it was impossible, so they did it."
The broad emphasis of the Maple Spring movement was against growing austerity within a "neo-liberal" capitalist system. Much the same focus as the "Occupy Wall Street" actions with the juxtaposition of the "one percent" against the "99 percent".
Organizers wisely realized that a campaign against neo-liberalism was probably a nonstarter. Too broad and unfocused. A more down to earth, concrete target, was needed: huge increases in tuition fees that limit access to education. In other words, many of the "99 percent" cannot get into postsecondary education. Schooling that is needed to create a more egalitarian, enlightened, humane, and caring society.
You might say: "Quebec tuition fees are already relatively low. Why are these students whining?" Education is the hallmark of a civilized society. It should be a right that all are entitled to regardless of class or other origin. Not just the wealthy or middle class should be doctors, nurses, lawyers, social workers, teachers. All these professions should be representative of the social and economic make-up of the society as a whole.
We all, for example, have an interest in ensuring that we have enough trained nurses and doctors, to help keep us healthy. We want them trained based on interest and ability, not based, for example, on class, race, gender, or the size of their pocketbook. Nadeau-Dubois noted that 50 percent of Quebec students at colleges and university are "first generation" students from families where attendance at postsecondary institutions has never happened before.
Public funding of postsecondary education helps ensure that these institutions are not just funded by corporations and tuition fees. Education is not just a financial "investment" in which each student expects the best financial "return". Nadeau-Dubois noted that in Quebec, things have reached the point where a corporation may fund a specific teacher for a specific course if they like the message that teacher is delivering.
Education is also about ensuring that the arts, humanities, and social sciences, not just business and commerce oriented subjects, are taught. A broad education should move our focus away from just narrow financial self interest and more towards community: acting in a more selfless manner that places the interests of the broader community (for example, protecting the environment and ensuring social equality) ahead of purely personal financial gain.
As Cox noted, "Education can be free, should be free" and is a "measure of the level of our civilization."
So, let's have our Maple Spring here in B.C. As Nadeau-Dubois noted, "Social movements are not like peanut butter in that you can spread the same formula all over the country." We should churn our own brand of peanut butter.
Let's start with our colleges and universities. Institutions, that since the student protest reforms of the 1960s, have become more and more the bastions of privilege. The campus at the University of B.C. illustrates the point: tuition fees steadily increasing and huge chunks of the infrastructure at the university bought by corporations. In other words, the "Coca-Cola-ization" of our learning institutions.
So, let's have our Maple Spring here in Vancouver. Child poverty, often exacerbated by lack of access to decent, affordable housing, is a disgrace in a province as wealthy as this one. Our politicians at the city and provincial level need a complete Maple Spring shake up to tell them that they must deal with this pressing issue.
So, a salute to the students and broader citizenry of Quebec for leading the way with their passion and commitment to create a more just and sustainable world. As Judy Rebick said at last Friday's event "Quebec has shown the way to the rest of us." And so now, let's have our Dogwood Spring here.
Paul Houle is a Vancouver social worker involved in union, community, and political organizations.